The Japanese took Viet Nam away from France during World War II. At the end of the war, France-- it's manhood seriously in doubt, I suppose-- tried to take it back. To do this-- believe it or not-- they accepted the assistance of some Japanese forces that had yet to be repatriated. You can't make this stuff up.
Let's go back a little further: history is incredibly rich in instructive detail about empires and irony.
The French chose sides in a long-standing civil war in Viet Nam, which had it's roots in the 1850's. Eventually, the French and their proxies simply elbowed aside the natives and took over. Why? History books simply tell you that the French "took control" as if there was something logical and reasonable about a European Nation walking into a foreign country on the other side of globe and taking control. It's ours now. Your wealth will now flow into our pockets. You are now working for us.
With the defeat by Nazi Germany, France lost control of their colonies, to the Japanese. During the Japanese occupation, Ho Chi Minh agitated for a end to any foreign domination, and formed a guerrilla movement. When the Japanese were defeated, Ho proclaimed an independent Viet Nam. That seemed an insanely rational thing to do.
The French, deeply moved by the sad experience of being occupied by an evil foreign power, congratulated them and moved on.
Hoo hah! Did you believe that even for a second? No, France said, not so fast. They offered a puppet state to Ho; he declined.
It was the French and the Americans who defied rationality. The French decided to try to take Viet Nam back, as if they had some sacred title deed to the nation. After the negotiations failed the French moved their armies in. A little cheesy, you might think. Having been soundly defeated by the Germans and restored to power by the Americans and British, they go marching into Viet Nam all bluster and courage and medals and parades. In fact, General Gracie, the British commander, allowed the Japanese to be re-armed in order to help the French retake Viet Nam from the Viet Minh!
Here is the fork of history-- how many lives would have been saved if the French had simply admitted that they didn't belong there in the first place, and if they had simply congratulated Viet Nam on their independence and moved on? Where would we be today? How many French, Americans, and Vietnamese, and Cambodians, and Laotians, would be alive and well and perhaps even prosperous today, if some asshole Frenchmen had not decided that it would do France's honor some good if it could bully some Asians into submission?
What they wanted, I believe, was the rubber.
Let's not be overly simplistic-- the communist government in the North were no saints; they destroyed the economy and caused famine into the 1950's. Russia and China interfered, using them for their own purposes. But the decisive matter is this: Viet Nam resisted both the French and the Americans because they wanted independence, and once the French and then the Americans were gone, they turned on the Chinese and the Russians and did just what they said they would do originally: take control of their own nation. Had the French departed in 1950 as they should have, they would have learned their lessons about management of the economy much sooner. The moderates would also not have been driven from all levels of government the way they were when civil war broke out.
The Americans, we are told in one documentary, confronted Chinese troops in Korea, which led them to believe that communist China must be "contained". The glib voice doesn't tell us how the Chinese came to be involved in Korea, of the arrogance of McArthur, and the diplomatic bungling, or the hubris of the allies. (China wanted to stay out, but the Americans blundered into the border areas in order to crush the North Koreans. China warned the U.S. that they had an interest in who occupied the towns near or on their borders-- the U.S. ignored the warnings and were completely taken by surprise by the Chinese attack.
So the French, in order to cut off a possible Viet Minh initiative into Laos, moved about 10,000 troops into a valley in North Western Viet Nam called Dien Bien Phu. Comments on Youtube in response to a documentary on Dien Bien Phu rhapsodize about the honor and courage of those 10,000 French. Maybe. What is courage, when placed in the service of foolishness and pride? The French built an airstrip and fortifications and promptly found themselves surrounded by 50,000 Viet Minh. Even the possibility of retreat had been excised.
In early stages of the battle, the Viet Minh lost 10,000 casualties to 1,700 French. At that rate, you might think the French might eventually win.
But all the lessons the U.S. later took 13 years to learn were in full expression at Dien Bien Phu already in 1954.
How many of these lessons still apply to Iraq? They almost certainly apply to Afghanistan which, after 10 years of occupation, shows no sign of pacification.
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© Bill Van Dyk
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